The province of Surat Thani is officially known as the province of a thousand islands -- many of which lay off the coast in the Gulf of Thailand. These islands include the very well known trio of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao. After Phuket on the west coast of Thailand, these three islands are one of Thailand's biggest tourist draw cards.
Many (including the tourist office) will wax lyrical endlessly about the powder-white sands, palm-fringed beaches and turquoise waters laden with tropical fish that legend has it can be found on these islands, but unsurprisingly the truth isn't quiet so pretty.
The islands are indeed very beautiful, but untouched and undamaged they certainly are not. Environmental issues, particularly on Ko Samui where land speculation continues unabated as basic infrastructure issues like roads, water and waste management are left in the bottom of the drawer point towards the general unsustainability of the industry as it currently stands.
Home to an international airport and a number of ferry ports, Ko Samui has by far the flashiest accommodation of the three islands as it is increasingly catering towards jet setters happy to pay tens of thousands of baht a night, and while there are still many budget bungalows on Ko Samui, the overall rising price of land makes it increasingly unlikely that more will appear anytime soon.
Ko Pha Ngan, next in size and popularity, just to the north of Ko Samui, is home to the infamous full moon parties -- massive drug and alcohol fuelled all-night parties -- often attracting five to ten thousand people. Centred around what was once the most stunning beach on the island, Haad Rin, the beach now a Jekyll and Hyde affair, alternating between being a still rather pretty, though over-developed white sand beach; and a festering filthy armpit filled with ravers, drunken yobs, undercover police and some pretty slippery characters -- all depending on the phase of the moon -- we tend to steer clear of Haad Rin during the party! Parts of the rest of Ko Pha Ngan, particularly on the west and east coasts are still very good value -- pick and choose and you'll have a great time.
Ko Tao, the smallest and arguably most densely populated of the three islands, is the diving capital of Thailand. Like Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Tao has some problematic areas, but overall it's a lower key destination, popular with divers, but also with longer term travellers. In the last couple of years an increasing number of top class resorts have opened indicating where future development is going, but for now, if you want a bungalow near the water for under 500B, you don't have to look too far.
Back on the Thai mainland, Surat Thani stretches from the east coast almost to the Andaman Sea, encompassing a stunning and rarely-visited mountainous centre. Opt for the mountainous road between Surat Thani on the east coast and Takua Pa on the west and you will find yourself in a tropical replica of northern Mae Hong Son.
South of Surat Thani towards Nakhon Si Thammarat is a second mountainous region of equally breath-taking proportions, with summits of over 1,500m and large expanses of gorgeous rainforest.
Surat Thani town is better known amongst the locals as Ban Don (although strictly speaking this refers to the market area only), Surat Thani (or Surat) literally means 'City of the Good People' and is an important administrative and commercial centre for Southern Thailand.
Located some 650km south of Bangkok, this is the first real southern town you will reach travelling down the east coast; the cuisine is spicier, the days are hotter, the locals are friendlier and there is a noticeable Muslim community.
Considering the amount of tourists passing through Surat, very few actually stay in the town or spend more than a couple of hours waiting for a boat or bus. It is a pleasant growing city in its own right, far less touristy than Krabi and a decent spot to spend a couple of days lounging around town or to use as a base for day trips to the surrounding area.
Surat boasts many hidden gems for tourists willing to give it a chance. If you are planning on heading to the Gulf Islands from Surat Thani, savour Surat as it will be the last slice of 'real Thailand' you will see till you return!
With a population of around 45,000 the central area of the city is stretched out along the southern bank of the Tapi River, the modern part consists of two long parallel streets containing most of the banks and larger shops whilst the older part, with the market and narrower streets is situated by the river.
On the outskirts of the city, Surat is growing up. There is a Tesco/Lotus plaza and several hotels under construction. Even though the concrete architecture is not atheistically pleasing, Surat's welcoming downtown and night market make up for it. Take advantage of Surat's splendid cuisine and special attractions.
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Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.